A bestseller is unique. A buyer cannot substitute a Harry Potter title for any other book. In economic terms, a best-seller provides a mini global monopoly, and therefore, the ability to maximise profits. Over the last decade, mega-publishers have made acquisition of bestsellers their primary strategy. Unfortunately, the only sure way of capturing a bestseller is by acquiring an established brand. Brand value is built through previous books by an author, or acquired through some other form of celebrity – Tony Blair’s memoirs are an example.
The downside of this “guaranteed” bestseller acquisition strategy is that publishers are competing for the same limited number of well-known brands. This ensures that bestseller rights are fully valued by the seller (usually an experienced agent), and the chances of super-profits are slim. The result can be seen in the financial results of the “big five” global publishers. Over the last few years, profits for their book publishing arms have rarely broken the 5 percent mark, and some have suffered losses.
As Bloomsbury can testify – the way to make super-profits is by acquiring rights from a previously unknown writer like JK Rowling. Unfortunately, wading through piles of unsolicited manuscripts, or “slush” as the pile in the corner is generally known, is a soul-destroying job. This applies especially for discerning readers – as editors always are. So editors usually delegate this task to agents or go by the recommendation of authors they know. But there are new strategies available as a result of the internet age. Here are some to consider if you are a publisher or agent, and want to improve your odds of finding/creating a best-seller;
Acquisition. Translation rights are often available for bestselling titles in other languages. Only three percent of English language titles have been translated from another language. Yet if a book has become a bestseller in a foreign country (Sweden springs to mind), it has much better odds of becoming a bestseller than the average manuscript that arrives in your mailbox, since 99.5% of all manuscripts submitted will never be published.
Even in the English language there are opportunities to discover Trans-Atlantic and English-Asian best-sellers. This opportunity arises because the distribution systems and market promotion systems in Asia, the UK territories and North America have surprisingly little crossover. What has been missing is a way to find “sleeper” bestsellers by independent publishers across the ocean.
Sparkabook is a new internet service created to help you trade rights around the world, with the goal of helping you spend less time and get better results from your research and sales efforts.
New discovery methods. Web sites are constantly springing up offering contests and ways for writers to get themselves known. Some examples across different genres are Figment, Authonomy, Webook, and WritersCafe, but there are many others. These sites give you a way to proactively search for material (or writers) that fit your niche, and might help you narrow the pool to the top 20 percent of talent, improving your chances considerably.
Out-tasking. Historically, the slush pile was delegated to new graduates when they joined a publisher. The consolidation of large numbers of publishing houses into mega-publishers with “lean” and efficient structures has all but wiped out this tradition. However, it is still a strategy that will widen the pool of manuscripts being evaluated. In these times of high unemployment, perhaps it is worth investing in our own graduates or students to do this type of work again? Alternatively if this is unaffordable, the rapid growth of a well educated, English speaking middle class in many parts of Asia (India, Philippines, Malaysia) has created an opportunity for you to build a team of low cost, high quality readers that can be reached through social media.
New Research Methods. If you are a non-fiction specialist, finding a bestseller depends on being ahead of the global pulse and matching it with timely publications. You can use the power of the internet and new web applications for trend watching to get the jump on everyone else. Google trends, Twitter trends and Trendwatching.com are just some of the tools you can customise to match your needs.
So, as a publisher, you can improve your odds of finding an “undiscovered” bestseller by using the new tools of the digital age. However, even if you don’t find a bestseller, Amazon.com’s range of titles combined with new print on demand technologies have opened everyone’s eyes to the benefits of having a solid mid-range – the “long tail” of quality titles that do not explode onto the market, but burn for a long, long, time.